Hidden Information: The Work of Jim Sanborn

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 Jim Sanborn's cryptographic sculptures, pieces on atomic energy, and large-scale projections might already seem familiar. Installed in front of the CIA headquarters, the ciphers in his sculpture Kryptos have puzzled many a code-cracker (three out of four of the coded sections have been solved), and he has been the subject of several museum shows. The artist answered a few questions we had on his work via email:     

There's often something hidden in plain sight in your work.  In public installations like Kryptos (at the CIA plaza) and A Comma, A in Houston, among others (I'm thinking also of the Covert Obsolescence andArcheotranscription pieces), it's letters/word/code.  How does written communication affect your work?  Is there a background story that drives these pieces?

Prior to the Kryptos commission my work documented hidden or invisible natural forces, Earth’s magnetic field etc. For the Kryptos piece and for the 20 years since, the hidden forces/content in text and language have taken over.

For most of my life both of my parents worked at the Library of Congress, My father as the Director of Exhibitions and my mother as a photo researcher, this privileged access to the historic record was tremendously enabling. The texts I chose for my public projects were heavily researched at the L.C. and in these works in particular the International, Classical, and Native American texts were used to encourage collaboration among cultures to fully decipher. Like Kryptos, the other public works are designed to exude their information slowly.

The “background story” is either above, or resides in the following: The Archeological record offers us a frustratingly fragmented view of the past. Though fragmentary, this archeoview is pregnant with secrets yet to be discovered and is thrilling in its potential. Secrecy is power even if it is just a little something kept from view, buried, so to speak, in the matrix of everyday life...

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John Young and Deborah Natsios (Cryptome.org) Interviewed in DOMUS

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The founders of Cryptome.org, architects John Young and Deborah Natsios, are interviewed in Domus magazine as part of their open source themed issue:

How did Cryptome begin?

Deborah: Our collaboration started some time late in 1993. We went online in the Internet's early infancy, its seminal moments. Quite quickly we became involved in these new online environments and communities that were positioning themselves on the front line of the politics of information. John's involvement with the Cypherpunk Listserv was a transformative moment—Cypherpunk was dealing with issues of cryptography and freedom of information, and was way more advanced than anything that architectural practice was interested in at the time. For a long time we were the only architects in a milieu of technologists, cryptographers, hackers—we experienced a very peculiar kind of isolation in those years.

John: Cypherpunk was completely different from anything that existed at the time. It was all about taking over the world by undermining institutions and authorities. Cypherpunk did not have any interest in design, or had never heard of it, or possibly just didn't care. On the other side, we were surrounded by architects and designers who were not interested in anything that might disturb the opportunity of getting work, anything that might hinder their careers. It was then that it started to dawn on us that the Internet was going to become an advertising medium, as it has become for designers and architects. Even today, there are thousands of websites about getting work and showing portfolios, but nothing even remotely disruptive. Cypherpunk was out to undermine precisely that.

What made you perceive the disruptive potential of the Internet in relation to the politics of information as something necessary at that time?

Deborah: I think the politics of these "new technology" people in the design world is very problematic. Architects are by and large engaged in a kind of ornamental politics—a telegenic, photogenic and glossy politics that is unerringly safe. They won't put their careers on the line, they won't be visited by the authorities, they won't be subpoenaed for a federal criminal trial—all of which has happened to us. Is your work pulling the tail of the tiger? Are the authorities appearing at your door with warnings? Very few architects can say that. There is a certain abdication of engagement in the circles of mainstream production as tools of change—exhibitions, magazines and so on play their own role in this game.

John: We are not aware of anyone else in the design world who is engaged in the sort of practice we are engaged in. And even if they were, you would never find out about them through the architectural and design media—they would be too bizarre to be associated with. What the architecture world does have is a particular breed of architects who are highly practised at being embraced for their "outsiderness". Being a professional outsider as a promotional schtick: they are welcome and there are budgets for them. So one option is to be mildly controversial, and get invited to places to give talks and do museum shows. The other is to actually do something that will really piss people off, to the extent they will never want to invite you again or have anything to do with you

via Adrian Chen

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